The Postsecondary Drive to For-Profit Mentality

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This is the opening paragraph of this morning’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Texas A&M University faculty members who are alarmed by the apparent influence that a conservative think tank is having on their university urged the system’s regents on Thursday to distance themselves from a group that they fear would move the system toward “a for-profit mentality that will ultimately devalue” its degrees.

Two things struck me about the article and above comment. First is that faculty are surprised—no, alarm—that a conservative think tank might have influence in—yes—Texas! How out of touch, Texas faculty. Really.

The second thing is that faculty members fear (and apparently are surprised by) the “for-profit” mentality in higher education. Really?

The Seven Breakthrough Solutions proposed by Texas Public Policy Foundation are intended as “suggestions,” not mandates, according to a member of the Foundation. The solutions include:

1.     Measure teaching efficiency and effectiveness.

2.     Publicly recognize and reward extraordinary teachers.

3.     Split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both.

4.     Require evidence of teaching skill for tenure.

5.     Use “results-based” contracts with students to measure quality.

6.     Put state funding directly in the hands of students.

7.     Create results-based accrediting alternatives.

You can learn more about what these items truly mean by clicking on the link above, but, on face value, I don’t disagree with any of these, knowing full well the explanation and definition matter greatly. So let’s spend a little time talking about these.

1.     Measure teaching efficiency and effectiveness. This is much past due at the postsecondary level. We need to do more to ensure that students—paying students—and subsidized students—are getting the type of experience they deserve. We need to teach instructors how to teach, and teach well. And we need to have measures and reviews, just like we do in K-12.

2.     Publicly recognize and reward extraordinary teachers. Why not? Stupid easy. But there must be criteria, not just give an award to the guy who’s fun on Karaoke night.

3.     Split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both. The point here is that research and teaching are different entities, and the Foundation is saying they should split budgets to focus on the unique requirements of each. Makes sense to me.

4.     Require evidence of teaching skill for tenure. Most colleges will say they do this. But they don’t. Money and publications still matter more than anything. There needs to be more focus on teaching.

5.     Use “results-based” contracts with students to measure quality. This is to build accountability for student outcomes. Again, I’m complety supportive, but it depends how it is done. In Texas, this would be easy at UT Austin, but a tad more complex at Prairie View. There has to be some flexibility for teachers, departments, and institutions that are catering to at-risk students.

6.     Put state funding directly in the hands of students. Vouchers. That is what this means. The Pell Grant is the nation’s largest voucher program, and it was intended to do what this strategy suggests: let students choose and the money follow. The point in the Foundation’s argument is to make colleges more competitive. This is the nature of much of the argument of faculty and others. But they should be competitive, and they are anyway.

7.     Create results-based accrediting alternatives. Again, possible and potentially good. Our current accreditation processes are brutal. They serve a purpose, for sure, but they aren’t good enough and need to be re-cast. Let’s look at alternatives to the current system.

According to the article, the “critics” (read: faculty) say that research and good teaching are inextricably linked. That is incorrect. Research and teaching are not necessarily inextricably linked, considering that many university-based researchers teach little or not at all. Second, research of any kind has little to do with “good” teaching. Good teaching happens when there is a focus on “good” teaching. I find research faculty to be among the worst teachers, since their focus is not on teaching and they do not have pedagogical background in teaching. They just kind of effuse their great knowledge. At best, they use the Socratic method: ask questions and let students do the learning.

The truth is this: higher education—especially the US model—is primarily for-profit based. Recent focus on proprietary institutions has clouded the reality that all higher education is pushing toward a for-profit mentality, and has for decades. The lobbying for research money; the push to broaden an institution’s mandate from two-year to four-year; the increased selectivity; the push for corporate/research parks. This is all market based.

I wrote several months ago about the very public McGill University’s (Montreal) push for a $70k+/year MBA program. US institutions have been doing this for a long, long time. Go look at the business schools at UMadison-Wisconsin, UVa, or the many others that have market-based fee structures. They may be public institutions, but only in name. They rely on subsidies from the state, but they work in every other way like a for-profit industry.

That is reality, and, sorry, unarguable. The real question is, does it matter?

Jeff Sandefer, a Texas Oilman (and millionaire) who crafted the seven solutions, says that higher education must change. “We have to find a better and, if possible, cheaper way to teach students.”

If Sandefer is true to his message, he is 100 percent correct. We have to find ways to bring down the costs of higher education. Only by bringing down “cost” can we bring down “price.” And we have shown a unique inability to do so over the years.

Whether or not the seven suggestions are worthy can be debated. Paying teachers based on student feedback is nothing short of stupid, because we know that 18- and 19-year olds aren’t the most mature critics of higher education and services. But it doesn’t mean that these things can’t be considered to some degree. We have to find other ways.

We probably need to look at structures that actually embrace adjunct faculty members (they are considerably cheaper and CAN have more experience than faculty), create a strong faculty core that focuses on both research and teaching (good teaching), and fully embrace and utilize online modes of instruction, which reduce our need for expensive physical plants. These are just three suggestions, but all three are considered controversial by some, and it’s the controversy that keeps us from moving forward.

So before we throw so many arrows toward Texas, maybe they are on to something. I’m more pleased that a conservative think tank is taking the lead on raising the importance of teaching and learning in our institutions of higher education.

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